The Iceman is becoming more than just a nickname for J.P. Howell; it's becoming the truth. After his ninth save yesterday, Howell is now 5-2 with a sparking 1.97 ERA and a FIP around 2.5. Nope, he was not an all star, he's better. The Iceman has been one of the best relief pitchers period in the American League over the last calendar year.
Using fangraphs.com and sorting by the last calendar year, Howell has the second lowest ERA among all AL relief pitchers. His 1.75 ERA is just behind Joe Nathan. Just to show that J.P.'s numbers are not a fluke, his FIP of 2.68 is fifth best over the same time period. Over the last two calendar years, Howell has surrendered just 32 earned runs in 135 innings.
Even more impressive are the number of batters that have been left frozen after a J.P. Howell at-bat. In his last 78 innings pitched, Howell has struckout 91 batters. His 10.63 K/9 is third best in the AL over the past year. Yep, the soft tossing lefty who tops out at 87-88 has K'd more batter per nine than Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, teammate Grant Balfour, and nearly every other reliever in the AL.
Almost as impressive are the free passes or lack there of issued by Howell. In those 78 innings, he's allowed just 28 walks or just 3.23 per nine. He has also excelled at keeping the ball in the yard and has given up just four home runs in his past 74 appearances. In the same time frame, Papelbon has given up five and Mariano Rivera seven. His 0.47 HR/9 over the past year is once again amongst the top 10 in the AL. In fact, did you know that Howell is the ONLY reliever who ranks in the top 10 in each of the following categories: ERA, FIP, K/9 and HR/9, over the last calendar year?
Of course, the reason Howell isn't regarded among the elite relievers is because of his low saves total. As we saw in the Royals series, judging a pitcher's value as a reliever by saves is completely and utterly overrated. Joakim Soria has a lot of saves and is easily the best Royals reliever, yet when the games counted most Soria was not used because it wasn't the ninth inning. Instead of getting the most important outs of the game and meaning a four, five or six out save; Soria sat the whole series and watched three straight eight inning meltdowns. Hat tip to Trey Hillman for that.
Despite the low saves total, Howell has earned a 1.5 WAR, second best in the AL behind Andrew Bailey. We normally do not advocate signing relief pitchers to extensions around here, but J.P. is a bird of a different feather. Signing Howell to a three to four year deal maybe smart giving the fact that he's only 26 and his stuff isn't expected to just decline with age.
No, Howell is not the Rays closer, he's much more; he's their relief ace. Just ask Kansas City. Nine Royals up, nine chilled, that's how the Iceman rolls.